Community Arts as a Way of Life

Epiphanies often happen during the most mundane of tasks. For Ashley Minner, that moment-when she was able to put a name to her life’s work-came because she wanted to cut class.

Epiphanies often happen during the most mundane of tasks. We know the famous ones — we are able to measure the volume of irregularly shaped objects because Archimedes decided to take a bath. And Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was triggered because he took a walk and noticed an apple falling from a tree.

For Ashley Minner ’11 (Community Arts M.F.A., General Fine Arts BFA), that moment — when she was able to put a name to her life’s work — came because she wanted to cut class.

“I was an undergraduate and decided to take Visual Journalism, because I saw the course description; and it said we’d be in different neighborhoods in the city, including mine. I thought, ‘Great! I’m going to disappear.’ I didn’t want to go to class. I thought I’d get something to eat, go visit people,” Minner explained, adding, “But as it turned out, I discovered that community arts was a thing that you study and do, and I didn’t realize until then that what I already did was community arts.”

But to say that she simply wanted to cut class is unfair. Always a straight A student, Minner was feeling uncomfortable in MICA’s environment, which, while great in its own way, was unlike anything she experienced growing up. She felt race and class tensions, but didn’t yet have a vocabulary to articulate the experience.

Minner is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and is deeply attached to the Baltimore American Indian Center, located on S. Broadway Street in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point. Southeast Baltimore has been home to a significant population of Lumbee Indians since World War II’s employment boom, including Minner’s mother’s side of the family.

“The way I was raised, you are expected to be a citizen of your community, to contribute. We help each other in whatever our vocation may be, and I’ve always been an artist,” she said. “That’s partly why I do what I do today. And I went to MICA because I didn’t want to move away from my community. It felt like a different world on campus, but at the end of the day I could go home.”

When the faculty member who led that Visual Journalism class, Ken Krafchek, launched the MA in Community Arts (MACA) program, Minner joined the program — with certain conditions. “Ken asked me to apply, and I said, ‘if I can work with my people in my community, I want to do it.’ Ken made a way for me to do that. I had a job working with my Aunt Jeanette, who directed the Title VII Indian Education Program of Baltimore City Public Schools. It was housed in the former Highlandtown Middle School. That became my MACA community site.” Minner said.

As part of her thesis in the MACA program, she developed the pilot for the Native American After School Art Program (NAASAP), which evolved into a successful application for an Open Society Institute — Baltimore Community Fellowship — an honor that comes with a stipend of nearly $50,000. The funding helped get the NAASAP off the ground, and the youth-run program is still active today. Now led by a group of four girls from the Lumbee Tribe, the community arts for social justice program allows its members to choose which issues to address within their community.

When the program started, Minner brought in guest artists, and participants studied everything from photography to quilting. Over time, due in large part to Minner’s hectic schedule, the core group of girls in NAASAP took true ownership of the program’s direction. “The girls today are all little arts professionals. They write grants — they’ve gotten two so far — and they participated in the Alternate Roots regional conference in Tennessee this summer,” Minner noted. “They did a watercolor show and raised $1,000 for Haiti. They donated their old toys and raised money for a homeless shelter in West Baltimore, and they did art workshops with the kids there.”

Still an active part of the lives of ‘my girls,’ as she calls them, Minner went on to earn her MFA in Community Arts at MICA and is currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies. She said that awareness of her role in these young people’s lives helped motivate her to continue her education — that, and advice from one of her own mentors, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. Vega passionately advocated for more education, noting that there are not enough women of color in advanced positions and with advanced degrees.

Minner was also a 2016 Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellow at the institute, where she worked with a cohort of young arts professionals from around the world to address disparities in arts funding and investment.

“We addressed whose art gets to be art in New York specifically,” Minner said, but pointed out that the issue has a much broader context. When describing her work, and the work of many other community artists, she stressed, “We are addressing disparities that are as old as this nation state. Race is at the core of everything in America. It began when there was contact with Europeans — they wondered if the people they found here were subhuman or not. How do you keep people of color down? You devalue their cultural production. You don’t recognize their art as art or their beauty as beauty. That plays out in a million insidious ways, like what or who is represented in popular media.”

Minner stresses that all forms of art are important, but adds, “In the Lumbee community, there’s always been art. We make regalia. There’s dancing, singing, and music. There’s culinary art. It’s just not art as defined by the Western academy. If you’re a person of color or someone who doesn’t fit the dominant culture, you don’t always see your people’s history or your people’s accomplishments reflected.”

And the desire to change the conversation about what is art and what is beauty is at the heart of Minner’s work as a community artist, and continues to drive her work with the NAASAP’s four girls.

“I want them to be proud of who they are and to love the way they look. I want them to understand the importance of family, and that they’re also a part of a legacy that’s so much bigger than just themselves. I want them to know it’s fine to dream big. I want them to know they’re important,” she said, pausing a moment as tears threatened to overtake her words. “I just love them.”